A Path to Almost Everything

An Interview with Geneen by Joan Brunwasser, OpEdNews, July 2, 2020

This is not just any interview but one that took two weeks! Joan kept the questions coming, read five of my books while we were in contact, and together, we went back and forth, deeper and deeper into the heart of emotional eating and what prompts it. But not only emotional eating: In the process of answering her questions, I discovered things I hadn’t been aware of, which was wonderful and quite surprising. And because it goes into such depths and heights, I wanted you all to see it, read it, take it in.

JB: Welcome to OpEdNews, Geneen. You were one of the first to see the connection between our emotions and our relationship to food. How did that come about? How were you able to put your finger on something that had eluded our attention for so long?

Geneen: I'd spent years in a hell realm with food and my body, gaining and losing over a thousand pounds. No matter how thin I got during the dieting part of the diet-binge cycle, it didn't affect the self-loathing about my body and my life. At some point, I realized it was the self-loathing that was at the core of my eating, and that my relationship with food was the outpicturing of that; it wasn't, I saw, that food or even the size of my body was the problem, it was the feeling that I was defective, a failure, lacking in value--and that I needed to keep proving I was allowed to be here, on earth, by always being in the process of losing weight. When I suffered about my weight, I felt that I was at least trying to be better than I was. And after many years of this same pattern, I caught on to the deeper layers of it, which was, as you say, the connection between our emotions and our relationship to food.

JB: For years, social norms, buttressed by the $50 billion dollar weight loss industry, have pushed a feminine ideal that is not practical, healthy or permanently attainable. Despite all that, women slavishly subscribe to the philosophy that you can never really be too thin. Then, when we don't reach our goal, we are filled with that deep sense of failure that you speak of, because of our lack of willpower. What a Catch-22. Many of us have also learned over the years not to trust our own judgment about food consumption - not just what to eat but even when or whether we're hungry. And that virtual surrender and always feeling bad about ourselves are really tough to overcome. Yet you somehow found the wherewithal to jump off that hamster wheel by taking courageous and radical action. Tell us about that, please.

Geneen: I wish I could say that it was wisdom, not woe that catalyzed the proverbial jump off that wheel, but it was that I had reached bottom and was contemplating suicide after years of self-and-body-hatred. I didn't want to keep living with wanting to rip myself apart, cut chunks of fat off my thighs, face and arms. It was unbearable. And so I gave myself two choices: stop dieting, eat what my body wanted or end my life. It seems reductionistic now to say that out loud, but that's exactly how it felt. And I told myself, if I stopped dieting and gained a huge amount of weight (which was my big fear, as I had only been on either a diet or a binge for almost two decades), I would see how it went for a few weeks. That, as it seemed as if I was already willing to take my own life, there was nothing to lose.

Almost immediately, I felt as if I'd been let out of prison. I was gleeful verging on ecstatic at not restricting myself, not judging myself, not shaming myself. I realized then that what I most wanted from being thin or losing weight was exactly what I was feeling then, without losing a pound: a sense of joy just because. A feeling of belonging here, in what I call earth school. Of being allowed goodness without having to pay for it by suffering and depriving myself.

JB: At some point after you figured this out and freed yourself from the diet trap, you started a support group in a friend's living room. What were you envisioning?

Geneen: Actually, I started my first group in my organic chemistry teacher's house, as I didn't have a job or money, and he and his wife hired me as a nanny for their two year old daughter. They were incredibly kind to offer me their living room when I told them about my idea for gathering with other women who were compulsive eaters and ready to stop shaming themselves.

I charged a dollar a night to cover the cost of the copies I'd made, and within the first hour or two, I realized that we were navigating new and thrilling territory--the link between what we were eating and what we were feeling. The ways we used food to express what we didn't feel capable of expressing directly. The fact that the problem really wasn't food, but our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about strength, power, sadness, rage, having women's bodies. Later on, I would say that "the world is on our plates" and that we eat the way we live because, as the Zen masters say, how we do anything is how we do everything. But in those early days, it was one step at a time. First, to begin unwinding what I considered the biggest source of pain in my own life, and then, to begin listening to other women's stories. I wrote a set of guidelines for sane and body-centered eating, and I also began creating exercises and questions that would touch the heart of the emotional reasons why people turned to food when they weren't hungry. More and more people heard about the group, wanted to join, and so I started another group, and then another. Until I'd saved enough money to rent my own apartment and hold the meetings there, we met in the back of a delicatessen that one of the women owned.

If I envisioned anything, it was writing a book about what we were discovering. Before that night at my chemistry teacher's house, before it occurred to me to unwind the relationship between food and self-loathing, I had fallen in love again with writing. I say "again" because I'd wanted to be a writer since fifth grade, but was convinced that I wasn't good enough, that it was impossible. But on a whim, I joined a weekly writing group led by the now well-known poet Ellen Bass called "Writing About Our Lives", and I remembered that writing had been my passion for years. After the first few weeks of the group, I realized I wanted to write more than I'd wanted to do anything, ever. So I decided to model my life exactly on Ellen's life: she led weekly groups so I would do that as well. She wrote poetry and I started doing that as well. She put together an anthology of women poets, and I decided I would create an anthology of women who were struggling with food and body size. My first book, Feeding the Hungry Heart, is the result. I suppose it's possible to say, although I've never said or even thought about it in this way, that the writing came first and I started the groups so that I would have something to write about.

JB: Thank you, Ellen Bass and fifth grade dreams! Your work has clearly struck a chord with many thousands of women over the years. You cited the Zen view that how we do anything is how we do everything. And you have ventured beyond food to write about the way our feelings also affect how we deal with money. Although it makes sense now, that connection came as a big surprise to me - attesting to the power of blind spots. Can you talk about money a bit?

Geneen: Here is one thing I've been learning over and over: that it's not the thing we think we want that we want -- whether it's a thin body, success at work, a loving relationship or riches -- it's how we believe that having that will affect us. The Big Lie is that things we can touch, see or have make us happy, but that never happens, not once. And as Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard professor, who wrote Stumbling on Happiness describes it: we do an awful lot of "miswanting", as we are terrible predictors about what will make us happy. About money, he says that after the basic needs for food, shelter and clothing are met, having more doesn't add more happiness to our lives. Somehow, though,we keep ourselves entranced about this so that we can keep wanting and keep believing that someday, out there in the future, we will finally relax, be content.

My own experience with money, as with food, was radical: we lost all our life savings in 2008. (I often think that if I wasn't so hard-headed, I might not have to have such catastrophic experiences. But apparently, wanting to kill myself after gaining and losing a thousand pounds and losing all my money was what it took to get my attention.) And after the initial shock, terror, shame and grief, and after receiving so much support from my friends and teachers, I realized that the only way I was going to make it through was by focusing on what I did have, not what I didn't. What I had enough of, not what I had just lost. I became vigilant about this practice, moment to moment, and was stunned by what I already had that I hadn't been noticing: chair, teacup, chocolate, sky, foot, love. Within a week, I felt as if I was drunk on abundance itself. And I understood that enough wasn't a quantity; it was a relationship to what I already had.

JB: What a lovely, if hard won, revelation, Geneen. In preparation for this interview, I binge-reread five of your books (in no particular order) and then read your latest one just a few days later. While that experience was quite intense, it also allowed me to see more clearly the common threads running through your work. You draw us in and disarm us by sharing incredibly personal stories that don't necessarily reflect your best side and many of which are howlingly funny. We connect with you. We absolutely identify with you. The topics you discuss are dead serious. You, on the other hand, don't take yourself too seriously, which is a balancing act and a gift.

With each book, I've learned more about your challenging childhood, deep-seated eating issues, fears and anxieties, reframing your relationship with your parents, broken and reformed friendships, relationships with men and then Matt, pet mishegas, financial upheaval and more. And with each challenge, you've eventually pulled yourself together and emerge stronger than ever. It's inspiring. How are you able to share so much with us without feeling completely exposed and raw? Have any stories been particularly hard or simply too hard to tell? Are there any topics that are off-limits?

Geneen: Thank you for your kind words about my work.

I like lifting the covers up. For so long (and sometimes but not often, now), I felt ashamed of what I was feeling or believing. No one I knew was talking about their secrets, their fears, their middle of the night rantings, and so I wrote about them because in writing, I was able to understand what those secrets wanted to reveal, what they were attempting to express. Writing was (and still is) a way to know what I'd always known without knowing I knew it. It's like an arrow that penetrates the dark mystery that seems to be inexpressible.

By the time I write about something--financial losses, abandonment issues, lost friendships--I've worked through its charge so that it doesn't feel raw, but rather, as if it happened to me and not me. The me of the past. There are many subjects I wouldn't write about, but if I told you what they were, I'd be writing about them...

JB: Good point! Much of what you write about has to do with old stories that we've grown up with - oldies but notgoodies. Can you talk about The Voice and ghost children? Recognizing and understanding them has been very helpful to me and I imagine it might be for many of our readers as well.

Geneen: I named what many of us know as the superego or the inner critic as the GPS from the Twilight Zone because it invariably steers us in a direction that is not helpful, and most of the time, causes us anguish. I also call it The Voice, as it rattles on all day long as the voice in the head that tells us to do this, not that, and that we've done too much of this but not enough of that. It is sheer torture but unless we recognize it, we are blended with it and believe everything it says.

The challenge with The Voice is that it also tells partial truths, but with judgment and morality. So, if I've gained fifteen pounds, it might say, "Look at you, you piece of trash, you fat sloth, you self-indulgent wreck, you gained fifteen pounds"" And then we feel shame because although it's true, we gained fifteen pounds, it is not true that we are therefore trash, sloths or wrecks. But we can't distinguish the objective truth from the glaze of disgust that it is spoken with and that it weaves moral judgments with.

The Voice also has an ongoing list of complaints: you're a failure, you work too hard, you don't work enough, you're selfish, you're ugly, you're skin is terrible, you use too much water, you need to be an activist, you need to stop being an activist and start taking care of the rest of your life. No matter what you do, according to The Voice, you are doing it wrong. You cannot get it right because its very existence is dependent on correcting you when you do it wrong and because it needs a job--it's developmental necessity, a part of the structure of the ego, that all of us have by the time we are four years old--it is always on the lookout for what is wrong. How terrible you are. How unjust.

I've been meeting this voice inside myself for many years and in consistent practice with naming it, questioning it, separating from it and as I say in my book, This Messy Magnificent Life, treating it as if it's a crazy aunt in the attic who can rattle on all day, but if I am downstairs with the music on, it doesn't matter. I don't engage.

The most important thing about it is to recognize that it's not our friend. That although it started out as a protective mechanism and an internalized set of guidelines that we needed to survive as children (i.e., to not bite people, throw food on the walls, walk into traffic, steal silverware from our friends houses, pinch people on the butts as they walk by--something I did and got in big trouble for--or various other activities that might, as adults, get us kicked out of our social circle or arrested, it is no longer helpful. I encourage my students to notice the second they suddenly feel small, paralyzed, collapsed, ashamed, needy and to track back and see what just happened and the statements they are reciting to themselves as if in a trance. Usually, we've been repeating the same top ten tunes of this voice for so long, that we no longer question them. We believe they are true and walk through the rest of the day feeling deficient and ashamed and small. But with awareness, this can and does change. And it's liberating when it does. It's like being given a whole new life in which we are not whipping ourselves. And when we stop that kind of self-punishment, we can ask true, fearless questions: what is the most effective way for me to act now? What I am being pulled to do? What is the truth here, now, with this person/job/situation and how can I act in alignment with that?

The Ghost Children--and although I did use that term in my book, so many people found it spooky that I no longer describe those early patterns that way--are those parts of ourselves that are frozen in the past. They are what many people refer to as "inner children." If we've experienced shock or trauma or abandonment, if we've experienced loneliness of rejection or depression as children (and really, who amongst us has not known at least a little of any or all of the above), then parts of ourselves stay as young as we were when we had that original experience. (This is only my observation, based on experience. I'm not a psychologist or a therapist. I'm describing what I've noticed in myself and with the many people I've worked with. It is worth saying that when there has been shock and trauma, I refer people to therapists because there is a kind of sensitivity and cherishing that is required to address those patterns, and without the training in that particular work, I and my team cannot provide that).

However, there are run-of-the-mill childhood beliefs which become patterns of thought and feeling that almost all of us have: we believe we aren't lovable, aren't worthy, or that we are selfish, lazy, demanding, good-for-nothing and on and on. Those structures or identities got fixed in place years ago and unless we meet and question them, they remain operative in our minds, bodies, relationships.

JB: And how. Thanks for going over that for us. On another front, the novelist, Anne Lamott, wrote what has to be perhaps the best introduction that I have ever read. She sketched you so lovingly, quirks and all, that it was clear that you two are good friends. What were you imagining that she would write? Did she describe you as you see yourself?

Geneen: Annie is, yes, a good friend. She is a fabulously brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny writer--even in her personal emails, and I feel fortunate to know her. This isn't the first book of mine for which she wrote an introduction; she also prefaced When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair, published in 1998, and that too, was classically Annie: far-ranging and profound while also being self-effacing and very funny.

I can't really answer that last part of your question, as I don't think we ever really see another person, only our idea of who they are. Like Roshoman, the Buddhist parable, about various men touching an elephant and making different decisions about what it is based on what they can see or touch. Even my husband, whom I've known for thirty-four years, constantly surprises me when he interprets what I do or who he thinks I am through the filter of his mind--all of which is to say that I didn't have a preconceived idea of what Annie was going to write, but I was honored by what emerged. And, as in true Annie style, laughed uproariously at her play of language and descriptions.

JB: What a fun friend! When things are 'normal', I imagine you out and about, engaging in book tours, TV appearances, retreats and workshops. COVID has assured that none of that activity can take place in the traditional way. How are you managing that aspect of your life? And in general, how are you coping personally with this circumscribed life? Any tips for us?

Geneen: At the onset of the sheltering-in-place directive, I read a piece by Olga Tokarczuk in the New Yorker. She wrote, "Might it not be the case that we have returned to a normal rhythm of life? That it isn't that the virus is a disruption of the norm, but rather exactly the reverse--that the hectic world before the virus arrived was abnormal?"

As an introvert--someone whose energy is restored by solitude--the need to stay home, not run around, has been a relief, while at the same time, I feel the loss of a way of life, and sorrow for the tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods have been crushed, as well as grief for the people losses, the deaths, and the rippling effects on the families of those who died. One of our closest friends died from COVID, and two others were so very ill. The devastation that has been caused by the virus is wide-spread and I don't want to minimize that at all. On the personal side, my in-person events have been cancelled for the year, my husband's entire business has been slashed--and still. And yet. What I know is that this virus is teaching me, once again, that I have no control over what happens. That all my plans are always, not just now, question marks. That everything changes in an instant. And that what has come up for me during these last few months was always there, waiting to be noticed, met, and welcomed. Any feelings of anxiety or loneliness or devastation or frustration are mine to deal with; they might be triggered by an external event but the event itself doesn't cause it, can never cause it. And the sooner I am aware of what lurks in the wings of my psyche, my heart, my mind, the sooner I can meet it with clarity and gratitude for showing me what is still causing me (and by extension, those around me) pain. In that way, I've been taking this time as a kind of retreat. A pause to stop, look, allow what has always been there to speak and to relax.

After we lost our money, I learned that the sooner I can stop resisting what happened--stopped regretting it, fighting it, trying to go back in time and change it (if there ever was a totally useless activity, it is to imagine turning back the clock and not doing what I already did. To keep expecting myself to know what there was no way to know. It's taken me a lifetime, but I finally catch myself when I start down that road. It's like grabbing onto the diesel pipes at the back of the bus and letting myself be dragged down the road with the fumes spewing in my face. Oy.) So, I am acutely aware in the moment, not just of that useless activity, but of anything I resist, try to change, get rid of, after it's happened--which includes trying to change anyone at all. COVID has flushed out a crowd of thoughts and beliefs that kept me running in place, and for that, I am grateful. It has also allowed me to once again, notice, moment to moment, that although there has been tremendous loss, there is also abundance staring at me all day long: chair, walls, teacup, hands, mouth, food, laughter. The more I question my thoughts and opinions and grudges, the lighter I become. The more my heart opens. The less afraid of the future. The better able to make clear decisions about what and when and where to act. There is also the direct experience that we are all connected and that what is done to one really is done to us all--that we share the same fears, get the same illnesses, die the same deaths. I'd read that before. I even thought I knew that before, but now, I know that in a direct way. And that is only good.


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